With its SlingShot line of SLR bags from a few years back, Lowepro showed the camera world a different approach to quickly getting at your gear while carrying it on your back. The side-entry shoulder bags allowed photographers to "quick draw" their equipment without taking the bag off the shoulder. Taking this different way of thinking from single-shoulder bags to traditional, two-strap backpacks, Lowepro's newest offerings – the Flipside series – move the access point to the back of the bag – the part that rests against your back when wearing the backpack.
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While the look and feel are decidedly unconventional, some time with the Flipside suggests that there's a lot to be said for this unique approach to the traditional photo backpack.
Design and Construction
Lowepro's Flipside bags come in two sizes, with the larger 300 that we used for this review recommended for larger semi-pro and pro-sized DSLRs with battery grips. In both cases, the Flipside has a slightly tall, narrow profile, but given its capacity even the 300 is surprisingly compact, measuring less than 18 inches tall.
I find the look of the Flipside's zipperless front appealing. Stylistically, the bag more closely resembles a daypack or small outdoor pack than a photo bag, adding to the security benefits for those hauling around equipment with four- and five-digit total price tags.
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While the effect is confusing at first (prompting more than one, "How do I get into this thing?!"), Lowepro's claimed benefits – including added security for your gear (as the bag access is covered when it's on your back), no need to set the part of the bag that rests against your clothes on the ground to get at your equipment, and a unique on-body access method that gives a nice platform from which to work – begin to make sense pretty quickly.
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For an overview of the bag's layout and features, have a look at our Lowepro Flipside 300 Video Tour:
In terms of build quality, most everything is up to typical Lowepro standards, with thick fabrics, quality stitching, and generally well-chosen materials. Zippers all feel rugged and heavily mounted, though the accessory pocket zippers on our test unit wanted to bind with some frequency. In terms of padding, there's plenty of it in all the appropriate places; with a camera and several lenses loaded in, everything feels secured with little movement.
The only design oversight of significance to the Flipside's target market – nature photographers, urban shooters, photojournalists – is the apparent absence of either seam sealing on the zippers or an included rain cover. The bag does claim to be weather-resistant, but how well it would hold water at bay in a downpour is unknown.
Cargo Space and Capacity
Internally, the Flipside is laid out much like many other front-loading DSLR backpacks, with velcro-in-place dividers that all for nearly infinite variation in segment size. A zipper accessory pocket is moveable/removable as well. The supplied dividers are sufficiently thick, providing plenty of padding between delicate gear. Likewise, the velcro connections are extremely secure, allowing even heavy, metal-cased lenses to be stacked without causing the compartments to sag excessively.
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Even in its larger size, the Flipside's narrow profile means that there are only two "full width" divider rows, in addition to another half-width segment. While this half-sized segment is too narrow for holding lenses, it's the perfect size for a backup point-and-shoot, bounce-head flash units, or small accessories.
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A pocket on the flip-down back pad works for holding flat accessories (memory card wallets, certain light modifiers, documents). A separate zippered pocket on the side of the bag has memory card pockets with enough space for several CF or SD cards, two pen holders, and space for filters or batteries. An attached mesh net prevents the contents of the side pocket from tumbling out when unzipped.
In terms of front-to-back dimensions, the Flipside 300 is deep enough to easily contain bodies with battery grips attached. Our test unit had more than enough space for a standard, four-lens "walk around" kit; if you use a fairly sparse setup otherwise, the Flipside 300 is large enough to contain a wide-aperture telephoto prime as well as most moderate- to long-range zooms. Slower "consumer grade" 75-300mm telephotos like the one pictured above fit with ease. Moreover, with plenty of space for larger lenses, even professional shooters willing to haul a fairly Spartan kit should be able to fit it all into the largest Flipside.
On-shoulder, the Flipside's heavy-duty straps offer an appropriate amount of padding for a bag of this capacity. I found the Flipside comfortable enough for all-day wear. A large single handle with a rubber grip insert made carrying the bag off-shoulder equally easy and comfortable. Conversely, the back pad, while nicely cushioned, doesn't provide much in the way of breathability – not a big deal in February, but I'm betting that it would be a different story on an August afternoon.
As a conventional backpack, the Flipside is, for all intents and purposes, just as easy and convenient to use as any other similar gear hauler. Depending on how it's loaded, the bag does an acceptable job of sitting upright on its flat, padded base, making it easy enough to work out of when placed on the ground. The tripod loop and foot holder work nicely as well, but if you need to lay the bag down for access, removing the tripod is almost a prerequisite – with a tripod mounted, the Flipside wants to rock when rested on its front, and won't sit upright because the foot holder hangs down below the base. Still, it's generally no worse in use than conventional backpacks, and seems to be better thought out than many.
Where the Flipside really excels, however, is with its slightly ridiculous looking but highly functional on-body "platform" concept. Getting the bag off your shoulders and into working position is easy: fasten the waist belt, slip the bag off your shoulders, and rotate it around until it's in front of you. Supported by the belt, the bag flips down until its flat base rests against your leg. Unzip the access panel and you're ready to shoot. With this quick change feature, the Flipside provides the ease of use of a belt pack system with the comfortable wearability of a backpack.
Because the bag rests against your leg in this position, the Flipside provides enough support and stability to work comfortably for short periods, even with a heavy kit. After some divider reconfiguration, I gave the system a try with a weighty medium-format film body and several lenses. Even with this gear combination, the Flipside worked alright in limited use, though using the bag in belt-pack position for hours with any setup will likely become tiresome. The issue in this case has to do with the design of the waist belt: I found the thin webbing straps here not in keeping with the comfort and quality seen in the rest of the bag. A nice, wide belt like the ones from Lowepro's belt pack systems would be an ideal upgrade for the next-generation Flipside.
So long as you're able to limit your working time in belt-pack position, however, the Flipside is relatively flawless for real world shooting.
On balance, while the idea seems specialized in its unconventional approach, the Flipside proves itself as a comfortable, functional bag that works with the way many of us actually shoot. If you've ever watched a great shot unfold while fumbling to extract your camera from a conventional backpack, the Flipside's quick-shift appeal probably makes some sense to you. And while it's neither comfortable enough for all-day use as a belt pack nor particularly fashionable as one, having the option to use the bag in this position isn't a bad thing.
Lens addicts or true pro-body users will likely find the Flipside's accommodations cramped. It may not replace a larger full-kit bag, but the Flipside is comfortable enough for nature photographers needing to pack in equipment to a location and flexible enough for urban photographers needing a low-profile work bag. With all this in its favor and a $75 street price, the well-made Flipside 300 seems like a smart investment.